'Assistant' Suffers From Premature Sequelitis
Kathleen Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Unreeling like a feature-length trailer, "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant" suffers from premature sequelitis. Mashing together elements from three of 12 books in the popular "Cirque de Freak" saga by Darren Shan, this "Harry Potter" wannabe plays like an inconvenient but obligatory prelude to the real action. Like his brother Chris, who helmed "The Golden Compass," director Paul Weitz may have killed off a promising franchise before it could properly launch.
Early on, "Cirque" looks as though it might concoct a deliciously shivery style and storyline, mixing the dark fairy tale flavor of "Edward Scissorhands" with Ray Bradbury's autumnal magic in "Something Wicked This Way Comes." Sharing the same name as his author, our teen hero Darren (Chris Massoglia) lives in a mildly malevolent small town, not quite as pastel as Tim Burton's, but firmly on the side of conformity and what passes for normalcy. Best pal Steve (Josh Hutcherson) disses him for his goody-two-shoes fear of risk, and for being totally under the thumb of his parents. When mom and dad hammer home Darren's future ("the happy, productive life ... college, job, family!"), they loom like crazies in a nightmare.
So it should literally be the difference between day and night when the two buddies sneak out to visit the Cirque du Freak, in a Halloween theater bathed in the red-tinged light of full moon. The tiny, unseen ticket-taker bites, and their host is one Mr. Tall, a lofty, etiolated gentleman whose head and shoulders seem strangely aslant. Every word Tall (the wonderful Ken Watanabe) utters in his accented, sibilant voice seems to slide around his mouth like some rich liquid.
A worthy guide into life's darker environs, Mr. Tall introduces the boys to a genuinely exotic freak show populated by snake boy (Patrick Fugit), bearded lady (Salma Hayek), hunger artist, wolfman, and a pretty blonde (Jane Krakowski) who loses and regenerates an arm with cheerful insouciance. But the pièce de résistance is red-maned Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly), a vaudevillian who dances daintily with a large red-and-blue spider named Octa.
Thus begins -- auspiciously -- Darren's accidental journey out of Blandland into a richer, more exciting order of experience as half-vampire assistant to Crepsley, a 200-year-old vamp given to deadpan wit and "flitting." Meanwhile, Steve -- who, we learn in what amounts to a hasty footnote, dreams of escaping a lousy home life by turning bloodsucker -- signs on with the Vampaneze, a vampire tribe far more bloodthirsty than the civilized Crepsley and his ilk, who only sip and never kill. (What's with the current style in vapid vampires: archetypal sexual monsters de-fanged into sparkly gay boys and fasting, conscience-ridden nice guys?)
The stage is set for vampire war by the monstrously fat, bald Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris, who looks like a refugee from a Gahan Wilson cartoon). He's the first thing we glimpse in the movie, stuffing his face with popcorn at what turns out to be Darren's funeral. Seems this soul-collecting "director" gets off on instigating misfortune and then watching it play out like grand opera. The mysteriously powerful heap of flesh (his limo's license plate reads DES-TINY) is backed by muscle, a "rotting corpse" named Murlaugh (Ray Stevenson, late of HBO's "Rome").
Sounds grabby, no? Pity that director Weitz's no storyteller, and a total dud when it comes to visualizing action scenes. This filmmaker has no feeling for how people occupy space, or how a real director composes the frame to convey meaning and draw the viewer into the narrative. The tasty ingredients of "Cirque du Freak" are simply dumped on the screen without finesse or conviction. One scene follows another without logic, haphazardly, as though someone belatedly remembered that certain story elements had to be laid down for future reference (another symptom of premature sequelitis).
In two action set pieces -- one in a mist-filled cemetery, the other in a old-fashioned theater -- warrior vampires zip hither and thither, trailing cartoonish streams of color. The combat has no design, and you can't even properly keep an eye on the fighters, since they're just F/X being whisked around the screen. Forget rules of engagement; we never know what special powers Crepsley and Murlaugh possess or lack, what might constitute a fatal blow. It's all hugger-mugger, catch-as-catch-can.
There's scant sign that Weitz felt any authentic connection with this fantasy or its characters. Leaving the barely serviceable teen players out of it, what pumps some power into the proceedings is Reilly's surprisingly complex charm, Watanabe's slinky authority, and the briefly seen Willem Dafoe's ancient zest for battle, animating a desiccated visage punctuated by a lounge-lizard 'stache. So many provocative personalities and dramatic possibilities, largely reduced to types trundled onto stage for a moment and then dismissed.
Still, it's worth remembering a weirdly intimate, and suddenly fatal, conversation between Crepsley and Darren on the roof outside the boy's bedroom window. Below, the nighttime street is flanked by rows of houses, glowing like whited sepulchers. Down at the end of the avenue hangs a red-tinged fog ... and a soul crosses over into the unknown, leaving an unsettling odor of melancholy in its wake. All of "Cirque du Freak" should have pulsed with that kind of scary, beautiful magic. Instead: D.O.A., R.I.P.
Kathleen Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and Web sites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.